Despite warnings, sequester impacts to Rocky Mountain National Park not ‘so awful’

Greg Campbell | Contributor

Budget cuts required by the federal sequester will hit Colorado’s famous Rocky Mountain National Park much less dramatically than viewers of a breathless TV news story may have been led to believe Wednesday night.

The NBC affiliate 9News began its story of budget cuts with peaceful scenes of deer against a mountain backdrop, with a reporter asking the ominous question, “Do you remember the last time something so awful reared its ugly head in such a wonderful place?”

In truth, sequestration-related cuts amounting to about 5 percent of the park’s $12.4 million annual budget, aren’t really going to be all that awful, according to park superintendent Vaughn Baker.

“It’s probably not as dire as it’s made out to be,” he said.

It also does not seem to be as dire as the White House made it out to be when outlining the possible impacts of the sequestration on various governmental agencies.

“Many of the 398 national parks across the country would be partially or fully closed,” read a bulletin on the White House website posted shortly before the sequestration deadline, “with shortened operating hours, closed facilities, reduced maintenance, and cuts to visitor services. These closures will hurt the many small businesses and regional economies that depend on nearby national parks to attract visitors to their region.”

Far from being fully closed, RMNP is trimming its seasonal staff and reducing non-emergency overtime for things like quickly plowing roads after late spring snowstorms.

Baker said details are still being worked out, but the park may hire 20-30 fewer employees to staff visitors’ centers and operate campgrounds. When it is fully staffed, RMNP employs 400 full- and part-time staff members.

A staff reduction could mean that one of RMNP’s five visitors centers will not open this year, or will operate on reduced hours. A campground that is already scheduled to be closed until July 4 due to road construction may stay closed for the season.

One cut that could have ripple effects is for nonemergency overtime for snowplow drivers to clear Trail Ridge Road in the event of a late spring or early fall snowstorm. The road connects park visitors to Grand Lake, a mountain town west of the park.

“The closures would affect the economy of Grand Lake due to lack of visitors being able to reach that destination,” park spokesperson Kyle Patterson told a Grand Lake newspaper. “Trail Ridge Road is described by Grand Lake business (owners) as the life blood of their economy.”

Rocky Mountain National Park sees an average of 3 million visitors a year and Baker said during peak months of July and August, there may be as many as 30,000 people in the park on any given day.

The park collects $7 million in entrance fees that are used to repair and build trails and to conduct other maintenance. Those services will not be impacted by the sequester, he said.

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